Crossing Croatia

30 01 2014

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I flew to Croatia four days early so that I could adjust to the time zone, not be rushed if we were delayed, and have a bit of time to explore the country beyond the conference site in Split. The conference, OnSustainability, is an international gathering of academic scholars poised to share research and insights into sustainability with their peers. I’m not sure how I got accepted to present at this 10th annual, but I was very excited about the mix up. My absolute favorite travel companion, my wife, Bethany, joined me for the journey. After all, she is the one who convinced me to submit in the first place.

I arrived at the tiny airport in Split alone. I had been separated from Bethany in Dulles, when a late flight forced me to run, 30 pound pack on my back, a mile through the extensive airport to catch separate connections to Germany. We never had a chance to get them to switch us onto the same flight, as I heard, “Paging passenger Kelly Weger,” being urgently called over the airport speakers. I was out of breath and sweating when I saw her standing at the ticket counter trying desperately to change her ticket to join me. I kissed her goodbye and boarded the plane for Munich.

split tower

When Bethany’s plane from Frankfurt finally arrived in Croatia, two hours after my prop plane, we were picked up by Jani, our host. He and his wife, Ojdana, rent out a two bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of a communist-looking, concrete housing complex. The group of residential towers sit back on a hill overlooking the Adriatic coast and the Old City of Split. Within 30 minutes, we could walk to the Old Town, and it’s Diocletian stone wonders. When the rain held back, this was a wonderful walk past bus stops, “caffe bars,” and the ordinary, daily wonders of ‘real’ life in Split.

We desperately needed a night to recover from 24 hours of unrestful travel. My flight to Munich involved Russian school boys emphatically playing video games on the touch screen directly behind my headrest; Bethany’s flight was punctuated by a screaming baby across the entire Atlantic ocean. The apartment was chilly, but a good size considering where we were. The cold concrete floors were meagerly furnished with heavily worn and mismatched objects, minimalist yet functional. We forced ourselves to stay up, fruitlessly search for restaurants with vegetarian fare, and then we bought groceries to survive the week on a budget. By 8pm, we fell hard asleep and slept like freshly rescued soldiers.

Our Croatian hosts met us the next morning to give us advice on what to do with our limited time in their country. I had researched it a lot, but Bethany only found out that she was coming three weeks prior, on Christmas day. Lucky for us, Ojdana is actually a travel guide during the high season. This time of year, however, travelers are rare. Croatia is plagued with rain 5 days out of the week, with highs in the 40s to low 50s Fahrenheit. After our morning meeting, we gathered our things, walked down to the Old City to rent a car, and off we went!

villageBethany got another international drivers license before we left, so my role was as navigator and photographer. We drove the slower, national road down along the coast to head South toward Dubrovnik. We left our plans wide open, and had hopes of making it to Montenegro to do an amazing hike up to the old castle overlooking the bay. Besides, when else would we ever make it to Montenegro? We never made it that far, but we made plenty of memories elsewhere.

water coastThe coastline itself is simply gorgeous, reminiscent of the familiar Route 1 along the coast of California. It was filled with winding, twisty two lanes, with the road tumbling down to our right into the ocean. To our left, the mountains climbed upward, lined with steeply graded paths and cascading fruit orchards. Unlike California, the coastline is dense with small villages, one after another. They do not shy away from building on such steep terrain, with houses often disappearing from view below the guard rail. We stopped several times to admire the vista, and take in the charm of the small towns. We were very lucky to have sunshine most of the way, but then the rain started about 3 hours into our journey.

dubrovnik stoneWe arrived in Dubrovnik after dark. The rainy streets glistened, highlighting the individual stones that made up the paths. We followed signs to the Center, and found a highly coveted parking spot, backing our rental car right up against the towering stone wall to the Old City. The wall, made up of two tiers, must be at least 50 feet tall.

dubrovnik city wallOnce we parked and loaded our packs onto our backs, we made our way back up to the North Gate. We walked into this protected UNESCO World Heritage site, raindrops falling softly, and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Although it was a Saturday night, the gentle rain kept most people cowering inside stone arches. The

dubrovnik steps

Old City is a living, breathing town, filled with homes, little shops, churches, and courtyards. It is also not shy about stairs! Upon entering, we looked down a narrow passage filled with stone steps that led down another 40 feet to the next main passage. We had no idea where we would sleep this night, so we started walking down the steps.

Along the way there were countless doorways to private apartments, some with signs that said “Sobe” or “Zimmer” which means rooms to rent. I tried knocking on a couple of them, but nobody answered. It was dark, well after 8 pm, in the off-season. We began to get nervous about finding a room.

Bethany suggested we go ask at an open restaurant, so we continued on towards a more brightly lit street. Inside the walls, only carts and pedestrians are allowed, and the widest streets are still tiny roads in the outside world. We walked into the first place we saw, and nobody was there. No guests, no staff, nobody. Bethany walked further into their tiny establishment and called out. A woman came out and, between our minimal Croatian and her mediocre English, we managed to explain what we needed, and establish that she could not help us. However, she pointed at another restaurant, called Ragusa.

Ragusa is actually a larger restaurant, but you cannot tell this at first. It encompasses five or six little storefronts, discrete and disconnected. We peeked inside the first doorway we came to, and saw another empty dining room with just a few tables. We wandered to the next door, and eventually found a person inside. She spoke good English, and said that they had a room available.

dubrovnik steps 2

After a few minutes, the woman explained that they have three apartments, with three prices. She said that the man next to her would show us the places, and if we liked it we should give him the money, but he spoke no English. We asked to only see the cheapest room, since 50 Euros was already more than we wanted to spend for one night. We followed the man, a short but smiling gentleman in his 60s or 70s, up the narrow steps in another nearly hidden passageway.

The room was actually very nice. Not in a clean, modern, fancy hotel sort of way, but in a rich, cultural, historic way. It was furnished with old wooden furniture that has probably been in their family for generations. There was just enough room to get around the double bed to reach the open tread stairs leading up to the other spaces. It felt a bit like being on a boat as I walked up and looked down upon the thick, ornately red comforter. Up the steps was a small kitchenette, a bathroom, and a living space with a loveseat and a desk against the window. The walls indicated a longstanding leak in the roof, which had created a mold spot the size of my head. Still, it smelled clean enough for one night, and we were exhausted.dubrovnik room

Bethany and I accepted the room, and the man continued to show us how to turn everything on. He kept finding things that were not quite up to standard, and then he would run out to get something to repair it, and come back a minute later to fix whatever was needed. First, a light bulb was out; then the space heater wasn’t working so he grabbed another one; then something else that was not important to us. We smiled at his eagerness to make everything perfect for us.

When he left, Bethany pointed at a painting on the wall and said, “That looks like my friend’s paintings. It could be his, since they have family somewhere near here.” I laughed, and thought to myself, “Sure. Might be.” If someone said they knew an American artist and then stayed at a hotel in NYC, I would say the chances are pretty slim that the art on the walls would be that of their friend, the American artist.

As we settled into our new room, Bethany and I plugged in and checked on our messages from back home. While I cleared out any important work emails, and then got to facebooking, Bethany gasped and chuckled. “You’ll never believe this,” she says, “My friend Tanja finally emailed me back about our trip to Croatia. She says her uncle owns a restaurant in Dubrovnik called Ragusa, and we should stop by and say hi if we can find it!” I laughed in utter disbelief. Perhaps she was right about the painting after all. In fact, the nice man who showed us to our room, could very well have been Tanja’s uncle. It’s a small world, after all.

Side note: Moments after arriving to the room, I went up to use the bathroom, where the floor was still soaking wet from recent cleaning. As I made my way back down those sailor stairs, I slipped, fell completely on my ass, and whacked my knee on the windowsill. Not a bad start to a city with a million steps! This was part of the reason we never made it to Montenegro. Bethany got ice from the restaurant, and we took it easy. I made a full recovery the next day.road sign bosnia
dubrovnik wall 2 dubrovnik road dubrovnik road 2 dubrovnik courtyard

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